Starr facing leaks query Independent counsel ordered to appear before a hearing

White House applauds

August 08, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A federal judge has found evidence that Kenneth W. Starr's office may have violated grand jury secrecy laws by leaking information to reporters, according to court documents released yesterday.

As a result, a federal appeals court has ordered Starr to face a hearing to defend his office against assertions by President Clinton's lawyers that the independent counsel broke the federal law that bars disclosure of any grand jury material.

The rulings, revealed in newly unsealed papers, place Starr in an embarrassing and potentially perilous position just as his

investigation of the Monica Lewinsky matter is at a critical juncture.

The rulings also handed the White House a measure of satisfaction. Clinton allies have long complained that Starr's office has leaked secret information in an effort to spin media coverage its way.

The three-judge appeals panel agreed with Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, who found that "the serious and repetitive nature of disclosures to the media of [secret grand jury] material strongly militates in favor of conducting a show cause hearing."

Such a hearing could ultimately result in civil or criminal sanctions against Starr.

In February, lawyers for Clinton and the White House asked Johnson to investigate Starr's office.

They asserted that the independent counsel's staff had leaked secret information about the Lewinsky case in violation of federal court Rule 6(e), which is designed to protect the secrecy of grand jury investigations.

Starr tried to block the investigation and, though he has acknowledged discussing the Lewinsky case with certain reporters, he has denied, as he did again yesterday, that he disclosed any secret grand jury material.

"This office has not violated Rule 6(e) and we welcome the opportunity to demonstrate that to the district court," Starr said in a statement.

The independent counsel also noted the appeals court's acknowledgment that the threshold for triggering a hearing into alleged violations of grand jury rules was "minimal" or "relatively light."

"Newspaper articles and media reports supporting the allegation may be capable of various interpretations," Starr said in a statement. "They may even be erroneous. This 'minimal' requirement is not a finding that Rule 6(e) has been violated."

Starr's efforts rejected

The newly unsealed records show that the Court of Appeals rejected Starr's efforts to stop Johnson's investigation. Instead, the court gave its approval for her to continue to collect evidence and to hold a hearing to determine whether Starr's office should be punished. The date of such a hearing is not clear.

According to the records, Johnson found that the president's lawyers "have established prima facie violations" -- or, what appear, on their face, to be violations -- of the secrecy rule that bars disclosure of any grand jury material. She cited media reports that disclosed information about grand jury material "and indicated that the sources of the information included attorneys and agents of the Government."

The burden is now on Starr, the court papers said, to prove that either the material given to the media did not constitute grand jury material or that the source of the information was not the independent counsel's office.

White House response

The White House, which has had few successes in recent weeks in its legal conflict with Starr, hailed the appeals ruling as significant.

"For the first time in the 20-year history of the Independent Counsel Act, a federal court has found prima facie evidence of potential criminal wrong-doing by an independent counsel," Jim Kennedy, a spokesman for the White House counsel's office, said in a statement.

David E. Kendall, Clinton's private lawyer, called the alleged leaks "highly unprofessional and utterly indefensible."

He said: "As the Court of Appeals observed, such conduct makes prosecutors, who wield enormous power, 'conscious participants in a trial by newspaper.' Illegal leaks cause irreparable harm to the grand jury process."

In one part of the ruling favorable to Starr, the appeals court overturned Johnson's decision that the president's lawyers could take part in the investigation of possible leaks and question Starr and his deputies.

vTC The appeals court said it would be "virtually impossible" for Starr's office to answer questions posed by the White House without risking the disclosure of secret grand jury material in the process.

Starr, in his statement yesterday, focused on this part of the ruling, saying he was "gratified" by the court's ruling, "which protects the integrity of the ongoing grand jury investigation and provides guidance to the District Court on the conduct of further proceedings relating to allegations that this office is the source of grand jury disclosures."

The court ruled that, if, after the investigation of leaks, the district court determined that the grand jury laws had been violated, it may report its findings to the president's lawyers.

"We are keenly aware that allegations that a government official has violated Rule 6(e)(2) are not to be taken lightly," the appeals panel noted.

If Johnson decides to punish Starr, she could impose any of an array of sanctions, ranging from a command for Starr to stop the disclosures to a referral to the Justice Department for possible dismissal of Starr or even criminal charges.

Pub Date: 8/08/98

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